Monday, March 22, 2010

Web 2.0 meets "Deconstruction"

Studying literary theory in the eighties or early nineties one could not escape the intellectual brilliance and confusion that the literary theory of “Deconstruction” brought to the discourse at most European and North American Universities. Reading and rereading books by thinkers like Derrida, Lyotard, or Foucault was the challenging main stable of anyone who wanted to participate in a new understanding of old and new texts within the academic discourse. Their claim of the death of authorship, their fight against a (or any) dominant narrative, and their endless dissection of short elements of any texts taught an unique way of reading and thinking.

The mid nineties seem to signal the slow decline of this particular branch of literary theory. But over the last year the sudden and strong critique of many social elements of the Web 2.0 universe (nicely summarized in Sunday’s New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani), could give one the impression that the success of Web 2.0 turned Deconstruction from a literary theory into a way of life of the modern Internet user. This life is defined by:

  • The loss of any regards for original authorship: Everything is borrowed, reused, repurpose, rewritten, recreated, sometimes with the clear reference to the original version, more often without any regards to it. The original has died, now everything is just the endless copy without necessary reference to the original and without acknowledging its character as a copy (Philosophers like Derrida called this a “Simulacrum”)
  • Any central narrative has been lost: The Internet allows not just the accelerated speed of any news but it empowers an endless stream of smaller and smaller stories (e.g. cat chasing its own tail, Spitzer explaining his affairs, Democrats passing the Health Care bill) without necessary any broader significance or prioritization. Neil Postman meets Jean Baudrillard.
  • Any text has the same authoritative value: The article by a Nobel or Pulitzer price winning author has the same authority, reach, frequency, and influence than a blog entry or tweet by a celebrity with a large followership. The quality of one’s craftsmanship seems to be less important than the loudness of someone’s megaphone.

It’s sometimes difficult to realize that one uses the same critical arguments to analyze the negative aspects of Web 2.0 that conservatives have used against Deconstruction 20 years ago. But it seems to me that it’s critically important to be conscious about the positive and negative impact of the Web 2.0 Discourse than just blindly following every dimension of it. Enlightenment was always about being conscious about the supposedly given truths in a particular time. And today, the positive impact of Web 2.0 has become a dogma. But anyone who has truly understood the theory of deconstruction realizes that the deconstructive analysis of the main narrative in any given time (here the Web 2.0 universe in which the literary theory of deconstruction is being transferred into a life philosophy) is part of correctly applying this theory.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Content, Context, and even Network

Working in any large marketing organization can be sometimes a bit confusing and disorienting. I like to explain to industry newcomers that any marketer in a large organization moves in two different dominant spheres: Content and Context. Content is the creation of something valuable, either in the strategic, creative, analytical or technical space whereas Context is the ability to move this creation through the internal machinery of any marketing organization, either on the client or the service side. Content is about the differentiating creation of something that will help achieve the marketer’s goal, content resides in the political sphere that can decide the success or failure of a content initiative or project.

There is definitely a parallel to Max Weber’s differentiation of three types of authority: Institutional authority and power (e.g. someone is the CMO or leader of a particular organization, formally announced and empowered), technical power (e.g. superior knowledge of a particular area that is critical for an organization), and charismatic power (e.g. the influence of someone by his or her pure personality and presence in a particular situation). Max Weber’s three different authority and power spheres are different than “Content” and “Context” but they can be useful in understanding certain organizational situations, too.

Back to the “Content” and “Context” dichotomy: It seems to me that almost each marketing personality has either a stronger tendency to be content or a context person. It’s rare to see that someone has a balanced portfolio of talents and skills across both domains. And in sum any successful marketing organization needs a healthy balance between experts and leaders in both spaces.

But over the last years I have noticed a new element that needs to be included in the understanding of any marketing organization: The Network, the incessant, never ending, and (mostly) purposeless build out of virtual connections between the marketer and “readers” or “followers”. At first glance it seems to be the same as the context sphere but it’s fundamentally different. Whereas context refers to the skill of analyzing, understanding, and acting strategically within an organization, the network component refers to the reach and frequency that someone is “connecting” with other human beings without ever truly engaging with them. It could be called the Paris Hilton or Aston Kutcher effect. Without having ever created anything meaningful or interesting they both became masters of the Network game which has morphed into a non-purpose driven sphere, where the number of paparazzi followers, mentioning in gossip publications, or the numbers of Twitter followers have become the leading indicator of someone’s network power. They don’t really care about the context or content sphere, since they don’t want to achieve anything beyond fame (=powerful network position) as a value by itself.

Now, marketers, and quite often brands, try to enter this “Network” game without generating interesting and relevant content but by creating as many networkconnections as possible. I don’t’ mind the emergence of this network component but it seems to devaluate the content focus that most marketers should have. It’s more important to create something relevant than having a large network power that is impressive in its vastness but meaningless.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The endless testing

Google’s Search algorithm is one of the most fascinating analytical initiatives (or should I call it a project) that exist in our field today. Enough books and articles have been written about it that linger between unveiling its inner workings and increasing the cloud of its secrecy. The weekly meetings of all of Google’s critical Search Engineers in the never ending attempt of improving the quality of its search results are probably one of the most interesting meetings, close in importance and impact on people’s daily lives to the president’s weekly “Mood of the nation” briefings and discussions.

One of the more intriguing elements of this weekly meeting and for me the foundation of Google’s long lasting superiority resides in the changed philosophy of how to do testing. Its core principle is that every search query is part of at least one test (more likely multiple) there is no separation anymore between non-tested activities and the usual small percentage of separated space of testing. Wired editor Steven Levy describes it well in this month’s WIRED:

“”There are so many changes to measure that Google has discarded the traditional scientific nostrum that only one experiment should be conducted at a time. ‘On most Google queries, you are actually in multiple control or experimental groups simultaneously’ says search quality engineer Patrick Riley. Then he corrects himself. ‘Essentially,” he says, ‘all the queries are involved in some test’. In other words, just about every time you search on Google, you are a lab rat.”

It’s a fascinating detour from most marketers more conservative testing philosophy where testing only happens in a well shielded space. I am curious to see how we could translate this Google approach of 100% covered, constant, and multiple testing to other marketing activities.